This room (part of the old church of the Carità) contains a series of paintings from the life of St. Ursula, all by Vittore Carpaccio, probably a pupil of the Bellini, who painted between 1490 and 1522. Carpaccio is the best re-presentative of the sportive and decorative character of the Venetian school at the beginning of the 16th century, and the graceful works collected here are his masterpieces. He is supreme as a story-teller. Before examining these examples of his art in detail, sit down on one of the little red stools and read the following short account of their subject.
[St. Ursula was a British (or Bretonne) princess, brought up as a Christian by her pious parents. She was sought in marriage by a pagan prince, Conon, said in the legend to be the son of a king of England. The English king, called Agrippinus, sent ambassadors to Maurus, king of Britain (or Brittany) asking the hand of his daughter Ursula for his heir. But Ursula made three conditions : first, that she should be given as companions ten noble virgins, and that she herself and each of the virgins should be accompanied by a thousand maiden attendants ; second, that they should all together visit the shrines of the saints ; and third, that the prince Conon and his court should receive baptism.
These conditions were complied with ; the king of England collected t t,000 virgins ; and Ursula, with her companions, sailed for Cologne, where she arrived miraculously without the assistance of sailors. Here, she had a vision of an angel bidding her to repair to Rome, the threshold of the apostles. From Cologne, the pilgrims proceeded up the Rhine by boat, till they arrived at Basle, where they disembarked and continued their journey on foot over the Alps to Italy. At length they reached the Tiber, and approached the walls of Rome. There, the Pope, St. Cyriacus, (or Cyprianus,) went forth with all his clergy in procession to meet them. He gave them his blessing ; and lest the maidens should come to harm in so wicked a city, he had tents pitched for them outside the walls on the side towards Tivoli. Meanwhile, prince Conon had also come on pilgrimage by a different route, and arrived at Rome on the same day as his betrothed. He knelt with Ursula at the feet of the Pope, and, being baptized, received in exchange the name of Ethereus.
After a certain time spent in Rome, the holy maidens bethought them to return home again. Thereupon, Pope Cyriacus decided to accompany them, together with his cardinals, archbishops, bishops, patriarchs, and many others of his prelates. They crossed the Alps, embarked again at Basle, and made their way northward as far as Cologne. Now it happened that the army of the Huns was at that time besieging the Roman colony; and the pagans fell upon the i t,000 virgins, with the Pope and their other saintly companions. Prince Ethereus was one of the first to die ; then Cyriacus, the bishops, and the cardinals perished. Last of all, the pagans turned upon the virgins, all of whom they slew, save only St. Ursula. Her they carried before their king, who, beholding her beauty, would fain have wedded her. But Ursula sternly refused the offer of this son of Satan ; whereupon the king, seizing his bow, trans-fixed her breast with three arrows. Hence her symbol in art is an arrow.
St. Ursula is the patroness of maidens, and especially of school girls. There existed at Venice a benevolent institution, under her patronage, for the support and education of orphan girls, the Scuola di Sant’ Ursula, (near San Giovanni e Paolo.) For this Scuola, Carpaccio painted the present series of scenes from the life of the patron saint, between 1490 and 1495. They are now well reunited in a room somewhat resembling their original abode. After seeing them, it is well to visit San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, where you will find a similar series, also by Carpaccio, from the lives of St. George and St. Tryphonius, still arranged in their first setting. These pictures, with those at San Rocco, will help you to piece out your idea of the splendid character of the old Venetian Scuole or charitable guilds. The visitor who has seen Bruges will also compare them mentally (or still better by means of photographs) with the Memlings of St. John’s Hospltal.]
This room and the two which follow it have been built in the upper floor of the suppressed church of the Carità. The St. Ursula series begins to the L. of the door as you enter; unfortunately, not all the pictures have been placed, it seems to me, in their proper chronological order in the story.
572. The ambassadors of the pagan English king arrive at the court of the Christian king Maurus to ask for the hand of Ursula. To the extreme L. is the loggia or porch of the palace, with gentlemen in waiting ; below, a senator in a red robe ; in the background, a port like that of Venice. In the central portion of the picture, the chief ambassador, kneeling, presents his letter to King Maurus in council ; behind him, the other ambassadors make their obeisance ; in the background, a galley, and Venetian architecture of the early Renaissance. To the extreme R. is a subsequent episode : King Maurus conveys the message to his daughter, who is counting on her fingers the three conditions under which alone she will consent to accept the suit of Conon. Notice her neat little bed, and the picture of the Madonna on the wall. This daintily simple room has one side taken out, as at a theatre. The duenna below with the crutch obviously gave the hint for the old woman with the basket of eggs in Titian’s Presentation in the Temple. Observe the classical touch in the medallion of a Caesar on the pillar in front of her.
573. The Ambassadors of the pagan English king leave the court of the Christian monarch. A preternaturally busy secretary writes the answer with the conditions to Conon. Observe the characteristic Venetian decorations of coloured marble, the niche over the door, and the architecture in the background.
574 The Ambassadors render their report to the pagan king in his own city, the architecture of which, though still essentially Venetian, is meant to contrast as barbaric and antiquated with that of the Christian king’s civilised capital. To the extreme R., king Agrippinus, seated, and looking fiercely pagan, receives the Ambassadors’ report in a little octagonal summer-house with exquisite columns of coloured marble. Note the wall behind, and the gardens. Outside stands a very Venetian crowd, with a balustraded bridge like those on the Riva. The central part of the picture is occupied by Prince Conon and his knightly attendants ; the Prince stands in the exact middle with his hand on his heart. All the architectural details are worth close notice.
575. The Departure of the two Lovers. On the L., Conon, with fair hair and a long red robe, takes leave of his parents ; in the background is the fantastic architecture of the pagan city, the turreted portion to the extreme L. being intended to produce a specially barbaric effect. The hill-town in the L. background resembles the neighbourhoods of Vicenza and Brescia. To the extreme R., St. Ursula takes leave of her parents, this Christian leave-taking being care-fully contrasted with the pagan one of Conon. The robes of Ursula, her father, and her weeping mother, are all beautiful. In the background, the stately Christian city, an ideal early-Renaissance Venice. A little to the L. of this group, near the flagstaff, is a somewhat later episode : Canon and his bride, this time somewhat differently dressed, meet for embarcation. (Perhaps, however, this scene represents Conon landing in Brittany, and received by Ursula ; while to the R. they may both be taking leave of Maurus.) The shipping, and the other accessories, such as the pontoon and the magnificent carpets, deserve close inspection.
Omit for the moment 576 in the centre.
577. Ursula and Conon arrive together on the same day at Rome, where they are met in solemn procession by the Pope, accompanied by a magnificent retinue of ecclesiastics. All the robes here are exquisitely rendered. In the distance to the L., the train of 11,000 virgins winds slowly, in single file, (as in the Memlings at Bruges,) absorbed in meditation, across the Campagna, with the Alps in the distance. Near them are eleven standards for the 11,000, and one with a red cross for St. Ursula. Many of the principal maidens wear coronets. In the background rises the castle of St. Angelo. Do not overlook the portable baldacchino and all the other ecclesiastical accessories in this fine and fantastic ceremonial picture.
578 (which ought to have come much earlier in the arrangement, at least if the legend was faithfully followed.) St. Ursula’s Dream, a very lovely picture. The saint lies peacefully sleeping in a neat little bed under a simple canopy ; to the extreme R., the angel enters. Every detail here is delicious, from the flower-pots and flowers in the window, to the clogs which the tidy little saint has put off by her bedside, and the dainty crown which she has care-fully laid on the parapet at the foot of the bed. A virgin martyr, but an ideal housewife.
579. Arrival of St. Ursula at Cologne. On the L., the maiden saint is seen in a portentous galley, very difficult to navigate, accompanied by the Pope and all his ecclesiastics. Behind, in another galley, some assorted specimens of the 11,000. A messenger in a boat seems to inform the pilgrims (quite needlessly) of the state of the city. To the R. is the besieging army of the Huns, most of them in frankly anachronistic late 15th century armour. In the background, the King of the Huns, himself, mounted, directs the siege. Beyond him stretch the tents of his followers, and then the turreted walls of Cologne, manned by the defenders. It must however be admitted that this is all very make-believe warfare. Nobody seems to take it seriously.
580. The Martyrdom of St. Ursula and the 1,000 virgins. In the centre, the King of the Huns, a most courtly and knightly gentleman for a pagan savage, bends his bow and directs an arrow straight at the heart of the kneeling St. Ursula. Behind her are Conon (?) and one of the virgins. A little in the background, the good Pope receives an arrow-wound and a sword-thrust, and his tiara falls from his dying head. To the extreme L. takes place an indiscriminate massacre, in which violent action (a weak point with Carpaccio) is only tolerably represented ; one Cardinal in particular, with an arrow in his face, is frankly comic. The upper part of the picture is formed by hard trees and a landscape background. The courtiers of the King of the Huns are chiefly remarkable for the barbaric variety and eccentricity of their weapons, in designing which Carpaccio’s fancy runs riot. To the extreme R. is the Burial of the Saint, who is borne on a bier by ecclesiastics into a church, attended by sympathisers who seem to be portraits of Venetian gentlemen. The kneeling figure at the base is doubtless one of the donors. This is the poorest and least worthy work of the whole series. Carpaccio here attempts a talk beyond his powers.
Now, return to 576, opposite, which is really the last of the series. It represents the Glorification or Apotheosis of St. Ursula. In the centre stands the triumphant saint, elevated on a clustered column of palm-branches, symbolical of martyrdom, and ringed by red cherubs ; behind her is a glory ; around her, a mandorla-shaped group of little winged angels ; above, the Eternal Father, much foreshortened, stretches His welcoming arms to receive her into bliss immortal. Below are the companions of her martyrdom and her glory, the 11,000 virgins, two of them holding banners, together with the sainted Pope and the ecclesiastics who accompanied him. I fail, unfortunately, to discriminate Conon. The three portrait-like faces on the L. I take to be those of the donors.